Fifteen liquid cuckoo calls echo through the forest across the valley, competing with the deep bass of thunder as mist rolls into the valley like gamboling dragons. As we hike up and along the mountain-spines, lightning strikes the high places on either side of us—no surprise, especially with the large metal crosses erected on every second mountain top.
Warszawa’s What, Where, When sings the praises of the wildlife found here in the south-west of Poland, including “brown bears, wolves, wildcats, bobcats, European bisons, carpathian stags, deer, wild boar, foxes, badgers and otters . . . golden eagles, Aquila eagles, eagle owls and black storks.” I’ve seen three mice, and a salamander in glossy black and brilliant yellow camouflage.
Spending three days in the Tatra mountains at Zakopane is a mixed blessing. We walk every day, hiking up to frozen lakes, braving the madding camera-clad crowds of Taipei-on-Sunday-afternoon proportions.
The Bieszczady trip was organized by Tomek (a postman) and his girlfriend, Dorota (a nurse), both of whom lead the hikes with determination. Some of the group keep up, following along the paths, bashing through the dense forest exploding in green. The slow walkers fall behind, and then get lost.
Cerulean blue sky, blinding white snow, dwarfed pines, frozen amphitheater-like peaks (Resa, 2499m), frozen lakes, the thunder of mini-avalanches ricocheting around the peaks, distant flying ant-like skiers, lime-green lichen, crystal-clear water and bird song, wailing children, drunken bellows and blasted cell phones, fields of lilac crocuses, plates of rysz, truskawka i smietana (rice, strawberries, and cream), cone-crunching squirrels, sweaty horses.
We smell just like the horses at the end of each day.
An avalanche of school kids thundering past has us jumping for cover, their elderly, professional, expressionless guide waiting for stragglers in knickerbockers, knee-high embroidered socks, practical boots, and a walking stick.
At the mountain shelters: hot lemon tea; breathtaking views; impromptu Polish/English lessons; talk of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Frankenstein; appalling toilet drops.
The journey to and from the mountains passes through fascinating rural landscapes: farmers and their families out in the fields with hoes and horses in tow, ploughing by hand, assisted by horses—back-breaking work—tractors being the exception, rather than the norm; lone men and women dipping into shoulder-slung bags and sowing alkaline or seed by hand; old ladies covered in scarves, hoes in hand; bee-keepers limping away from a hive with smouldering rags or cans and protective hats; the snow-covered Tatra mountains spot-lit by the emerging sun; a squadron of 36 hot-air balloons suspended like giant spinning tops against the sky-line; a flock of 24 red-white-and-black storks, recently back from Africa, rooting in a newly ploughed field; patchwork quilts of tree-tops, green punctuated by blinding white blossom; fields of brilliant yellow rape flowers, haystacks, and brinded hens.
Ewa, Gosia, and I sit in a Zakopane restaurant listening to a traditional local band, decked out in black felt hats, long-sleeved white cotton shirts and sheepskin waistcoats, contrabass, violins, and penetrating voices to accompany our beer and blackberry juice—Nazdrowie! A middle-aged couple sit behind the band, staring past each other onto the main street which screams “TOURISTS TRAPPED HERE!”—the woman’s foot tapping in time to the music.
Behind them, framed by the restaurant windows, is an old stone church. A bride emerges in the rain, is engulfed by the hugs and congratulations of her guests, each of whom presents a posy of flowers, duly handed on to the heavily-laden best-man. Ewa tells me weddings are supposed to happen in months with the letter “R” in them—which explains the wave-upon-wave of wedding cavalcades, balloons bobbing from every car. Conversations with my two highly successful female companions (a pediatrician and anaesthetist) reveal disappointed love affairs, broken hearts, and cynicism.
Our daily six- or seven-hour hikes reveal remnants of Ukranian-Polish cemeteries, the few remaining tombstones engraved in moss-embedded Cyrillic script, and 50-odd year old ruins of Russian Orthodox churches—only the stone foundations left of what must have been beautiful wooden onion-dome buildings.
This part of Poland is soaked in blood. Uniquely combined Polish-Ukranian communities used to live in this area, clearing the tops of the mountains for farming purposes for centuries, until they were all forcibly expelled by the army during the Communist era—which explains the destroyed villages, wild orchards, and bald mountain tops. Only in the last 10 years or so have the farmers and tourists returned. In the intervening years, when people needed to “disappear,” this was the place to hide.